The Problems with the Census in Luke’s Gospel

Jesus his life Poster-Art-768x1152In the episode of Joseph in the series Jesus: His Life, which airs Monday, March 25, 2019 on History, I make a reference to the problematic census in the Gospel of Luke that biblical scholars have wrestled with for at least a century.

Luke 2:1-3 reads:

(1) In those days a decree went out from Emperor Augustus that all the world should be registered. (2) This was the first registration and was taken while Quirinius was governor of Syria. (3) All went to their own towns to be registered.

There are a couple of problems with the census.

First, Quirinius and Herod the Great did not rule at the same time. Herod the Great died in 4 BCE. (If that fact alone causes you some hesitation—the fact that Jesus would have been born 4 to 7 years before Christ (BC)— please read my 2009 article, Why Christians Should Adopt the BCE/CE Dating System, which explains why this is the case.) Anyway, Herod the Great died in 4 BCE, and yet Publius Sulpicius Quirinius wasn’t appointed as the governor of Syria until 6 CE, that is, after Herod the Great’s son, Archelaus, was banished as ruler of Judea.

What does this mean? It means that Quirinius didn’t rule until until 10 years after Herod the Great had died! This means there is no way that Quirinius could have called a census while Herod the Great was king–Herod had been dead for a decade! And this means that Jesus couldn’t have been born during the reign of Herod the Great and in Bethlehem because of the census of Quirinius! The chronology is off by a decade.

There is a second problem with the census in Luke 2. Simply put, Romans did not require subjects to return to their ancestral homes to be counted, rather their made them return to their present homes. To explain this, I’ll refer you to what I wrote on pg. 230 of my 2016 book, The Cities That Built the Bible:

First, censuses were taken for the purpose of taxation. Although there are certainly literary records of censuses taking place throughout the Roman Empire at this time, [12] there is no evidence that those who were being counted were required to travel to their ancestral hometowns in order to be counted. Indeed, an Egyptian census edict of Gaius Vibius Maximus, the Roman prefect of Egypt from 103 to 107, did require that “all persons who for any reason whatsoever are absent from their home districts be alerted to return to their own hearths, so that they may complete the customary formalities of registration and apply themselves to the farming for which they are responsible.”[13]

Although this edict of Gaius Vibius Maximus does mention a return home for the purposes of taxation, residents were not required to return to their ancestral homes, but to their present homes, so that both people and assets could be assessed for purposes of taxation. Essentially you couldn’t be “out of town” when the government came to take the census and collect taxes. Indeed, traveling to one’s ancestral home would not allow pilgrims to “apply themselves to the farming for which they are responsible.” Rather, residents under Roman rule were to go to their present homes so that they and their possessions could be counted and taxed. Luke further strains credulity by arguing that the nine-months-pregnant Mary would have made the arduous three-day journey from Nazareth to Bethlehem. Thus, any registration would have required Joseph and his family to return to their present homes to be counted, and Jesus’s present home was in Nazareth, not Bethlehem.

[12] Josephus, Antiquities 17.13.5 (17:354); 18.1.1 (18:1–2).

[13] Lewis, Life in Egypt Under Roman Rule, 156. The census edict of Gaius Vibius Maximus of 104 CE from Alexandria is written on papyrus and cataloged as P.London 904 in the British Museum. See also Hunt and Edgar, Select Papyri.

Essentially, we don’t have evidence that subjects of ancient Rome were required to return to their ancestral homes for counting and taxation purposes. Returning to an ancestral home actually defeated the purpose—all a subject’s property would still be back in their present home. The Romans wanted to see who was in each present household and what they owned so they could tax it.

Rather, Luke used this chronologically-challenged census as a literary device to bring Joseph and Mary to Bethlehem temporarily so that Jesus could be born there, as Luke depicts Joseph and Mary as living in Nazareth both before and after his birth.

Remember, this is different from the birth narrative in the Gospel of Matthew, which depicts Joseph and Mary as already living in Bethlehem, and Jesus simply being born at home. Note, there is no mention of Nazareth (or a census for that matter) prior to Jesus’ birth in Matthew’s Gospel. In Matthew’s Gospel, the star appears, and the magi begin their trek from the east to Bethlehem. They stop to speak to Herod the Great on the way. This all takes some time, and is not congruent with a short, temporary stay in a guesthouse.

These are two problems with the census in Luke 2. Quirinius and Herod the Great didn’t rule at the same time so Jesus couldn’t have been born during both of their rules, and Romans didn’t require their subjects to return to their ancestral homes to be counted.

3 Responses

  1. Isn’t there a second Quirinius mentioned on a coin that could have served during that time? I’m all for detail and accuracy. Yet it often seems the logic applied to the content of the gospels is skewed. There’s plenty of room for Luke’s account to be more detailed and accurate than Matthew. Nobody seriously believes the Magi visited right after the birth. It seems to be 2 years later. You don’t have to “harmonize” the gospels to simply see signs of normal differences of point of view, rather than aggressively competing/contradicting narratives. Obviously the early church did not miss these differences nor did they find them contradictory.
    Luke may have gotten confused which Quirinius was being referred to. A return to ancestral homes could have been a move to shake the tree and see if there was anything else Rome could acquire. We have bits and pieces of Roman history. Eventually we may know these things for sure but for now a little less certainty may be appropriate.

  2. If you’re asking the question, I’m not aware of any other Quirinius, certainly not any other Quirinius who was governor of Syria. Yes, I agree with you, Luke is probably confused and in error. He may have named the wrong governor. And that’s my point. There is a big problem with the census–it’s a decade off. But that doesn’t resolve the other problem, which is that Romans wanted people to go home, not to their ancestral home, to be counted. Luke says this because he needed a reason for “Jesus of Nazareth” to go to Bethlehem to be born. Matthew did not need the census (and does not mention it) because in Matthew’s gospel, Joseph and Mary already lived in Bethlehem prior to Jesus’ birth. Then after Jesus’ birth, they fled to Egypt, and then instead of returning home to “the land of Israel” (Matt. 2:20, that is, where they had been in Bethlehem), an angel warned them instead to go to the Galilee (v. 22) and specifically to Nazareth (v. 23).

    So in Matt, Joseph, Mary, and Jesus come to live in Nazareth in a VERY different way than in Luke–in LUKE, they already lived in Nazareth and just went to Bethlehem temporarily for the “census”. However in MATTHEW, they lived in Bethlehem before Jesus’ birth, fled to Egypt after his birth, and then were warned not to return to their home, but instead to move to Nazareth. Two different birth narratives.

  3. Tim, if you think the New Testament (actually, the entire Bible) is “inerrant and infallible” then your response is expected and predictable. Always thinking there is missing information which, when discovered, will negate the many obvious and plain contradictions among the Gospel’s historical narratives, as presented here regarding the Census.

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